Displacing Bear Myths with Bear Facts

written by WWO Intern Jackie Delie, August 2015

We all have, or had, preconceived notions of a bear’s behavior. Bears instill fear, awe, wonder, and curiosity in us. Our perceptions may be the influence of the 1947 campaign “Smokey the Bear” that cleverly markets for the people to save wildlife from forest fires, or the 1961 TV show “The Yogi Bear” that created an image of a musical, funny bear, or it can be the influence of the iconic cuddly teddy bear that was first created in 1902 after President Theodore “Teddy” Roosevelt and continues to fill our households with childhood memories.    Then there are the sensationalistic stories of ferocious attacks on defenseless hikers or the charging of bears on one’s campsite that lead stories in the media and portray angry bears. However, it is important for us to dispel these myths, based on fear or the idea that bears are cute and approachable, and gain a greater understanding of bear’s behavior so we can peacefully coexist with  these intelligent and captivating creatures.

8 Myths on bears and the facts you may not know:

Myth #1: Bears can’t run downhill.

Fact: Bears can run more than 60 kilometers an hour and they can do it downhill, along a slope or uphill. Never try to outrun a bear!

Myth #2: Bears have poor eyesight.

Fact: Bears see in color and have good vision similar to humans. Their night vision is excellent and they are attuned to detecting movement.

Myth #3: A bear standing on its hind legs is about to charge.

Fact: A bear standing on its hind legs is just trying to better identify what has caught its attention. Bears have an excellent sense of smell through which they get most of their information about their environment. Standing up helps a bear both see and smell better to identify another human or animal.

Myth #4: Once a bear has tasted human-provided food, it won’t eat wild, natural food any more.

Fact: Bears are driven to put on the maximum amount of calories between hibernation cycles. They look for maximum caloric value with least amount of risk. When humans make food such as garbage and pet food easy for bears to aquire, they can overcome their natural reticence and fear of being around humans. Natural foods are actually preferred by bears, but conflicts tend to increase when natural food is at a low point, like the current drought throught the West – a good time to be more vigilant of bear attractants on your property. When all human-provided food is removed,  bears may still snoop around hoping to find some, but they will certainly resume eating natural foods.

Myth #5: If a bear charges you, climb a tree!

Fact: Climbing a tree in this case is a bad idea! All bears can climb trees, and much faster than a human can.  If a bear approaches you aggressively or not,  stand your ground, look big and yell and make noise. That alone in almost all cases will make the bear leave the area.   If the bear or any large carnivore charges, DO NOT RUN. That is just what prey animals do. Bears can outrun, out maneuver and climb faster than humans.  Black bears almost never attack people.  But it is always advisable to carry bear spray in grizzly country, be familiar with it,  and be prepared to use it. But remember that  attacks by either species, black bears or grizzly bears, are extremely rare. When they happen they make front page headlines. You are far more likely to end up hospitalized by a bee sting! WWO advises that all back country recreationalists practice “situational awareness” and carry emergency and safety supplies. Far, far more people recreating outdoors die of exposure due to unexpected weather events, falls , getting lost or drowning than animal attacks, yet many people still venture into the wilds unprepared.   Always be Bear Aware and carry survival supplies. And enjoy being out in nature, knowing you are prepared for whatever Mother Nature throws your way.

Myth #6: Bear that wander into inhabited areas such as campsites, rural towns or residential areas are dangerous.

Fact:    All large carnivores are potentially dangerous, and should never be approached. They are also very wary of humans and do their best to avoid them, so the first rule is to simply give them space enough to leave, clapping hands or shouting to encourage their departure. That will also help keep wild animals wild and human-averse. Bears may travel many kilometers in search of food. If you have stored your food and garbage properly and so have all  your neighbors, the bear will likely move on. Bear problems are not born, they are caused by mismanagement of human food and garbage.   Being aware of the issue and taking steps to reduce to near zero the number of negative encounters between people and bears takes commitment from all residents to keep neighborhoods free of all bear attractants, primarly accessible garbage or pet food. Western Wildlife Outreach is here to support your community, with a mission to promote an accurate understanding of how to safely and successfully live with large carnivores through education and community outreach. For more information on WWO’s work, and how to safely coexist with bears and other large carnivores, please visit our bear pages Grizzly Bear Outreach Project or Black Bear Outreach Project

Myth #7: Play dead during an attack.

Fact: The only time bear specialists recommend that you “play dead” when attacked is if you are suddenly attacked by a grizzly bear, and do not have bear spray or a chance to use it. In that case, cover the back of your neck with  your hands, curl in a ball and don’t move.   Adult-sized humans may be able to fight back against a black bear, and cause it to leave. Almost all  bear attacks that end in serious injury are by grizzly bears. Hunters are the group the most at risk of threatening encounters or attacks by a bear of either species  who has either claimed a kill, or is attempting to do so. Hunters should give way to the bear in those situations, and  please carry bear spray! Those who used firearms to defend against a charging bear were not seriously injured by the bear in 62% of cases, the same number as for those with no firearm or bear spray.  Using bear spray raises that number to over 95%.

Myth #8: Bears are carnivores that eat only other animals.

Fact: Although all bears belong to the Order “Carnivora” and we refer to them as “Carnivores” for that reason, both grizzly and black bears are actually omnivorous. They eat both plants and animals, with over 90% of their diet being insects or plant material which grizzly bears dig for underground and black bears find by tearing open stumps and logs. After a winter of hibernation, winter-killed deer or elk are an important source of protein for both species.